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43 Missing Ayotzinapa Students: What Did the US Know?

from the Nov. 1, 2023 Bulletin

Kate Doyle is Senior Analyst of US policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive and director of the Mexico Documentation Project. Since 1992, Doyle has worked with Latin American human rights groups, truth commissions, prosecutors and judges to obtain from secret archives government files that shed light on state violence. She began investigating Ayotzinapa in 2017, and in 2022 she made a podcast about the case, After Ayotzinapa, with Reveal, the online journal of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

In 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural School were disappeared.  How did you get involved in investigating this infamous incident?


México has seen many unsolved disappearances — 100,000 documented cases — but the families of the 43 publicly organized to find their sons, and the case touched a nerve. The government’s 2015 claim to have solved the case was met with complete disbelief, and massive demonstrations forced President Peña Nieto to allow an international team to investigate.


In 2016, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) submitted an explosive report, which proved that the government’s story couldn’t be true. The alleged murderers had confessed under torture, the supposed bones of the students were planted, and the alleged fire that incinerated the bodies of all 43 boys was scientifically impossible. After the report, the team left México immediately, fearing for their lives. 


The case was moribund for a year. But then the lawyers for the families contacted me in 2017, searching for new ways to get to the truth. Could government archives reveal new evidence?

You began filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)s. Were the US agencies cooperative with your requests?


I’ve been filing FOIAs for 30 years while investigating human rights in Latin America, including México. I used to get the reports I requested, but after 9/11 the reports became much harder to get. Now secrecy shrouds information, even though the public has a right to know what our government is doing.

Illustration by Dante Aguilera

When the students were attacked, they were riding in buses commandeered or "borrowed" (a yearly tradition) in Iguala, Guerrero, so they could attend a demonstration in Mexico City. Local police opened fire on them, then took 43 of the boys; they were never seen again. The Mexican military has a battalion stationed in Iguala, but they did nothing to protect them. I knew the US had done trainings for the battalion, so I filed FOIAs with the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon.

What I got regarding Ayotzinapa was nonsensical garbage. The agencies sent press reports, which were public, and “released” unclassified documents. The documents were all heavily redacted — huge swaths of text cut out as if with an electric saw. In some cases, I was able to see two versions of the same document and got to see what was redacted — and it was ridiculous. They were using FOIA exemptions to delete unclassified information!

Did you get any new information?


In 2015, one of the GIEI experts found that eight members of the Guerreros Unidos (GU) gang, the one the Peña Nieto government said murdered the students, had been indicted in Chicago. I was amazed and asked how she found the case. She said, “by googling!” So I filed FOIAs with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It turns out that during an investigation of heroin smuggling into Chicago, the DEA intercepted thousands of phone texts between GU members in Iguala and in Chicago.

The DEA phone texts contained a treasure trove of information. We learned that Guerreros Unidos transported drugs to the US inside hidden compartments behind the bumpers of passenger buses — just like the buses the Ayotzinapa students were riding when they disappeared. From the intercepted texts, we learned that members of the military in Iguala secretly sold weapons to the GU, and that some officers were on the gang’s payroll.

Parents of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa protest; the sign says, “The military knows!” Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Shutter

But though the DEA collected thousands of texts before, during, and after the night the students disappeared on September 14, 2014, there’s no evidence that the United States knew what was happening in Iguala in real time. The DEA was only interested in evidence pertaining to the Chicago case. 


By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, the Ayotzinapa case was four years old. Was AMLO able to make progress?


In his campaign for the presidency, AMLO promised to make Ayotzinapa a priority — and he did. One of his very first acts was to create a Truth Commission, and he appointed Omar Gómez Trejo as Special Prosecutor. Omar was exceptionally qualified; he’d been part of the 2015-2016 GIEI investigation. He knew the case well and was willing to put himself in harm’s way to help the families of the 43 get closure.

Omar Gomez Trejo resigns when indictments he issued were withdrawn without his consent. https://periodicocorreo.com.mx

The Commission did a decent job: they succeeded in completely demolishing what Peña Nieto called the “historical truth” — that the case was solved by the arrest of GU members. A leaked video showed Tomás Zerón, head of the Criminal Investigation Agency under Peña Nieto who was in charge of the 2014 investigation, interrogating people who had just been tortured to force confessions to the crime. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but he slipped out of the country and is living in Israel. By 2022, Gómez Trejo got 83 indictments against gang members, government officials, and military personnel.

But then, in August 2022, AMLO’s attorney general, Alejandro Gertz, asked Gómez Trejo to issue an arrest warrant for his predecessor, Jesús Murillo Karam, who had overseen the case under Peña Nieto. Gómez Trejo needed more time to build a solid case, but Gertz got an arrest warrant anyway, undermining Gómez Trejo’s authority. Gertz also unilaterally ordered the withdrawal of 20 of the 83 indictments, 16 of them of military personnel.


Public outrage erupted again. In July 2023, the warrants were re-instated. But Gómez Trejo had already resigned and gone into exile, and the new Special Prosecutor knows nothing about Ayotzinapa. We’re seeing the second collapse of the case. In nine years, the remains of only three students have been identified. As yet, no one has been convicted for the forced disappearances.


What next?


It seems as though AMLO is determined to declare the case solved before the next election. Both México and the US have been secretive. What we need is transparency, with all the facts put before the public.


In the meantime, the families of the 43 continue to be a powerful force.  They won’t stop until they find what happened to their missing sons. 

Hilda Legideño, mother of disappeared student Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, holds a portrait of her son at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.Salvatore di Nolfi / EPA / Corbis